Agriculture to Feed and Fuel the World

“Agriculture, in the next decade must produce as much food as was produced in the last thousand years to feed all the mouths” David Caffall, Chief Executive of Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC), guest speaker at the annual dinner of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association told members and guests.

Gary McGuigan, President, Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association with his wife Catherine, Mother Veronica and Father William at the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association Dinner in Holywood.
Gary McGuigan, President, Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association with his wife Catherine, Mother Veronica and Father William at the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association Dinner in Holywood.

He added “ Worldwide we are not only seeing a credit crunch, but a food crunch. Last week three news items referred to political unrest driven by food shortages, with actual riots breaking out in two African states as food supplies ran short, and India has banned rice exports this week.

“The agricultural industry is once again entering a period where it is seen as vital after a period of being taken for granted – it is easy to criticise farming with a full mouth. Agriculture is perceived as holding the key to both feeding and, more controversially, fuelling the world.”

Agriculture may hold the key but life will not be straightforward, environmentalists can capture consumer attention with accusations about fertilisers and pesticides. Green lobbies, especially in some Mediterranean countries oppose innovation on grounds of political dogma rather than scientific fact. Markets are increasingly volatile and forcing rapid change, so farm prices remain inadequate, grain farmers struggle with energy versus feed markets and the horn versus corn battle re-emerges.

The challenge will be to achieve a sustainable industry and that means the whole chain from inputs to retail shelf . The industry must continue to work to get across the fact that technology is ensuring we feed the world, and must ensure that regulators and policy makers do not needlessly restrict progress.

David Caffall emphasised “We need to ensure there is not over-reaction or false messages transmitted on key issues. In the myriad of facts being bandied about, the critical need is to establish real hard facts! “

He went on to say that the challenge is too big for any one organisation but the entire industry must co-operate to lobby and stand up for decisions to be made on sound, independent scientific facts.

“The agri food industry and the consumer must ask questions and look for balanced views, and play their part in communicating them. We are entering a very volatile period with lots of change and opportunities. However there are very big issues which no individual or trade organisation can solve alone. Together we can feed the world, may help to fuel the world and even save the planet.”

Food Quality and Safety in Jeopardy!

Misguided political decisions in Europe and at the WTO agreement coupled with retailers resistance to paying a fair price for quality food supplies could deprive European consumers of the high standard of food that they currently enjoy” Gary McGuigan, President of the NI Grain Trade Association told members and guests at the Association’s annual dinner.

Gary went on to point out that consumers in Northern Ireland are especially privileged in that they have an industry which provides wholesome food with quality guarantees and full traceability and which also takes account of animal welfare and the environment. The loss or reduction of this food source would mean importing food from areas which do not have the same standards of production.

The farming industry and food production have always been available and have therefore been taken for granted so consumers are not fully attuned to the current message. He said “Food, like agriculture has been around since the beginning of time. While the rise of the celebrity chef has made food sexy, agriculture and most of the agri-food sector remain very un-sexy to the general public.

“George Bernard Shaw said that there was no love more sincere than the love of food. The current demand for food and especially the food in our Western diet has meant that food security is now top of the agenda around the world.”

Gary emphasised that this can be especially seen in countries where governments are imposing export taxes on the agriculture sector or zeroing duties on imported agricultural products. Food security in some of these countries is a real threat and politicians are fearful of the consequences of soaring prices and limited availability.

In the developing world people are eating more meat. In countries like India and China a lot of their diets were grain based, as their tastes change and more meat is consumed then we need more grain to feed this demand. It takes 7kg of grain to produce 1kg of meat!! This demand, coupled with demand from the green fuel market and the influx of money into commodities from hedge funds has sent prices of agricultural commodities soaring.

Our local agri-food market is becoming more and more influenced by markets across the globe. The increase in the demand for Iron Ore from China has soared due to their construction boom. The ships that are carrying the Iron Ore are the same ships that carry our Soyameal, Corn Gluten and Palm Kernal. China’s demand is pushing the cost of sea freight to levels not seen before. This is just one of the many costs that have soared within our trade, we are all well aware of our crippling energy bills!

Our fertiliser industry, another key member of the agrifood sector, is also seeing huge challenges ahead. Prices here are also soaring and the supply of material is shrinking. To put things into perspective; farms in China do not use large amounts of fertiliser so there is scope for them to increase production by increased fertiliser application. If each farm in China only used one more bag that would equate to more than 22m tonne which is half the requirement of the European market.

However our farming industry is a world class one and with co-operation from the processors and retailers we can continue to produce quality food cost effectively. It will not be the price that the consumer has been become accustomed to as the era of cheap food produced under European subsidies is long gone. We must educate the public that the problems facing us are their problems also.

However there is a ticking time bomb that no amount of efficiencies at farm level will defuse. The EU is currently lagging behind the rest of the world in the time it takes to approve new GM varieties. I hesitate to mention this subject as it can cause so much confusion and an automatic outcry about the benefits or otherwise of GM technology. Let me state from the outset that the NI Grain Trade Association is neither for or against GM crops. We believe in consumer choice, so we provide all types of feed material whether that is GM, GM free, organic etc. This argument is not about technology it is about availability of feed materials.

These approval decisions, or lack of them, are made solely on a political basis and the people making them are ignoring the independent advice given to them by the European Food Safety Authority.

If the EU does not bring it’s approval process up to speed with other countries then we will have a ban on Soyameal imports into Europe while the rest of the world uses this product freely. That is 35million tonne of very important material that cannot be replaced and could spell the end of the pig and poultry enterprises within Europe. To put that into perspective the 500,000 people currently working in the poultry industry alone will lose their jobs while we import food from animals that will be fed on the very soya that the EU is considering for approval!!

Looking to the future Gary said “ If we have a level playing field with other food producing countries we can compete. Perched on this westerly point of Europe and having to import most of what we need we have always had to be more efficient than most of our counterparts. These efficiencies have enabled us to become a world class industry that should prosper in the years ahead. The increasing demand for food from the developing world could help our industry grow but we must have a level playing field with other food producing countries and retailers and consumers must acknowledge the fact that the gold plated article, albeit a bit more expensive, is still very good value for money!! “